Oct 31 2011

Outfitting a Teleworker

Make sure you supply your remote workers with these tools before they leave the office.

Today’s mobile workforce is changing telework from a nice idea to a reality. Most of us are now teleworkers in some capacity, so we might as well get tools that reflect that.

Want proof? Chuck Wilsker, president and CEO of the Telework Coalition (telcoa.org), told me he spoke to a group of 265 people not long ago. When he asked how many considered themselves “teleworkers,” about 10 percent raised their hands. When he asked how many worked exclusively at the desk in their office and never from home or on the road, only two raised their hands.

What’s in the Toolbox?

Device portability is the big reason that sales of notebook computers have outpaced desktops over the past few years. Anyone with a notebook and a few tools is ready to telework.

First, teleworkers need a decent notebook that is slightly beyond their current needs. Those reading e-mail and working on web-hosted applications may not need fast machines, but give them one anyway. Constantly waiting for slow remote networks to respond is frustrating enough, so don’t make them wait when opening a spreadsheet too.

Second, make sure those notebooks have webcams. Most notebooks made recently have them; if not, IT shops can easily find external camera options that cost between $20 and $100. Face-to-face meetings via desktop web conferencing aren't the norm yet, but they go a long way toward ending the isolation felt by those who are out of the office regularly.

Third, get your roaming user a decent cell phone. Don’t ask him or her to use a personal phone. In fact, you can use your VoIP system (you have one, right?) to “dual ring” a user’s office phone and cell phone. Why should your customers have to wonder which one to call?

Finally, embrace data safety for your company notebook as it wanders from office to coffee shop to hotel to spare bedroom. Use an online backup program that runs in the background as well as a local backup triggered by connecting to the office network. Make sure that users have up-to-date, client-based virus and spyware protection. And verify that the entire notebook disk is encrypted, because thousands of notebooks are lost every week. When someone finds your company machine, encryption turns their find from something worth pawning to something worth returning for a potential reward.

The Network Connection

For mobile users, Wi-Fi is the minimum necessity, and all notebooks include that support. Road warriors need constantly available wireless data networking — 3G, 4G, LTE, WiMAX or whatever's next. That requires an external modem.

Stationary teleworkers need a good router with security controls, a VPN back to the office and remote administration to solve any problems. And security, a lot of security. One big issue with home-based teleworkers is that they are unable to keep family members off their shiny, new computer (which is especially dangerous if you forgo encryption software).

Sharing a home network connection with children guarantees security and virus problems. You can't stop this, but you can slow it down. Even if you pay for a separate connection, kids will use it sooner or later, so be ready (and remember that encryption).

You will find that it’s cheaper to give a home worker a good desk and chair than it is to pay more money per square foot for another cubicle (try the calculators at teleworkresearchnetwork.com). And be prepared to get more productivity, not less, from newly liberated teleworkers. No commuting means extra time to work.